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Documenting my odyssey into the wonderful world of fantasy writing and beyond. Can't promise I will always be on topic as the world is vast and full of such wonderous, and sometimes terrible, distractions. Email me: cassandra.jade.author@gmail.com

06 April, 2009

The Problem With First Person

As I stated in the previous post, I finished drafting my first novel last year and am in the process of getting it published, or at least getting it ready to be published. Mostly I am in the process of becoming immune to rejection while continuing to make the work the best that it can be.

The novel is a fantasy novel entitled "Death's Daughter" and centres around the feisty Calandra Delaine, who at seventeen believes she has her whole life figured out. Because I started writing this story quite a long time ago, and because I wanted to really get inside of Calandra's head, I made the decision to write this story in first person, and have since fallen out of love with the concept.

Admittedly, it is the easiest way to convey thoughts and emotions directly from a single character to the audience. It also allows the reader greater insight into the decisions that are being made. At the end of the day, if the goal is reader connection and reader empathy, then first person is a fantastic choice, because it achieves all of these goals quite admirably.

Unfortunately, there is a trade off. For all the advantages of first person I ran into several major problems because of my chosen writing voice.

The first problem is simply one of connection. Calandra is an interesting character, or I think she is, but as soon as someone tries to read the story who has no interest in the inner thoughts or voice a seventeen year old girl trying to find her own identity as the world falls apart around her, you lose the reader quite quickly. The problem here is making sure that there is enough information given so that people can decide whether this is something they want to read.

The second problem was more difficult to deal with. Because Calandra was telling the audience the story, as soon as Calandra didn't know something, the reader couldn't. Given I was creating an entire fantasy world, the only information the reader could gain about it was what Calandra chose to share. While it might be nice for Calandra to assume the role of tourist guide, it wouldn't have fit with her character to ramble on about mundane details and descriptions of things she had no interest in, and so the reader is denied access.

Larger problems erupted when trying to resolve the story. There are some things that Calandra just never learns (because, let's face it, we aren't often sat down and told everything, some things are just never revealed), and yet that leaves the ending somewhat unsatisfying. The challenge became how to inform the reader and yet leave Calandra groping around in the dark. It took a while to get the balance right and ensure that there were enough clues and signs to point the reader toward the resolution, without revealing too much, too soon. Calandra may remain somewhat confused, but the reader should be satisfied with the conclusion.

What I desperately wanted to avoid was the "sit-down" resolution. I didn't want somebody sitting down with Calandra, after the final conflict, and explaining everything to her (and the reader) just what had happened. If the ending needed that much explanation after the fact, then it probably wasn't a particularly well told story to begin with.

I would like to say I had learned my lesson and was going to avoid writing in first person from now on, given the limitations I encountered. The truth is, I like my characters too much. I want them to tell us their stories from their perspectives. I just need to get better at it, and ensuring I can control the story sufficiently that the reader is given enough information. That said, my second completed novel draft is written in third person. I wasn't willing to dive straight into another round of first person mayhem.

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I think the problems with first person grow with the length of the story. It works for a short story with a linear plot and really only one important character. By the time you get up to novella or novel length, the need for interesting secondary characters and subplots will usually make first person untenable.

    One thing I learned from Nancy Kress's _Characters, Emotions, and Viewpoint_ is that third person limited does not have to be distant. You can make third person almost as intimate as first, but sharing all the character's thoughts and reactions as she experiences them. So you can get that closeness, but you retain the option to shift to a different character to show things the protagonist is not aware of.

    I consider using first person if:

    1. The protagonist is in every scene,

    2. The protagonist knows everything the reader needs to know to appreciate the story, and

    3. The protagonist's "voice" is important to conveying her character.

    Even if all three conditions are met, I will sometimes use third anyway to get more flexibility with distance.